Letter: Family plight shows need for better safety net

Re: The Dec. 9 Detroit News story “Homelessness, asthma force family to give up children”: The story of Siretha Lattimore, Dwayne Cole and their son Malik, is unfortunately, not unique in Michigan or throughout the nation. The experiences of this family are all too common in today’s child welfare system.

Malik’s story reads like a Greek tragedy, but it’s an American one. Working full time and barely getting by on $24,500 per year, losing their home and spending time in shelters, transitional housing, and sleeping in their car, Malik’s family had to make some heartbreaking choices. Many readers may have found it shocking that parents Siretha and Dwayne ultimately had to place their kids in foster care in order for their children to receive the care they needed.

Time and time again we’ve witnessed families confronted with financial hardships, either because of a series of unfortunate events as in the case of Malik’s family, or due to long-standing poverty. Lack of housing, transportation, and often, access to counseling and treatment services, are recurring themes in child welfare cases throughout the country. By all accounts, Malik’s family was loving and caring, but survival on a single, low income was fraught with risks. What choice did parents Siretha and Dwayne have? In the same situation, and with children with severe health conditions, what would you have done?

So where was the failure in our protective systems in this story? Should case managers have flagged the need for emergency services earlier perhaps? If they had, would there have been enough and sustainable help to prevent the final tragedy of a family torn apart?

Some states are successfully shifting from the traditional adversarial model of child neglect and abuse investigation and developing “differential response” strategies. These offer families a continuum of holistic services that allow children to remain safely at home. States are also making better linkages between child welfare and various economic supports. In Michigan, we have made strides in that direction, but have been stymied by disinvestment over the last decade that has resulted in cuts to basic needs programs and child-abuse and -neglect prevention strategies. Without state investment in these strategies, we are overly reliant on federal funding opportunities and philanthropy to assist families in these circumstances.

A recent proposal introduced in Congress is part of the answer.

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee will soon consider the Family First Act, a bill aimed at keeping children in the child welfare system safe, supported at home, and in family-like settings, rather than in protective custody. By providing states access to federal Title IV-E funds — the largest federal funding stream for child welfare — to invest in a range of holistic services for children and their families, including preventive and family services, the legislation would help build states’ capacity to keep children out of the foster care system.

The bill includes funding for short-term crisis intervention assistance to help stabilize families like Malik’s when they most need it. Short-term financial assistance would be made available for necessities such as utilities, rent, food, child care, and car payments. In Malik’s case, funding from the program could have been used to keep his family together, in their own home, before ever having to move to transitional housing, shelters, and eventually, their car, or the streets.

This legislation would provide a critically important funding source to support states in their existing efforts to provide a broader array of services to vulnerable children and families.

Michele Corey,

Michigan’s Children

Bruce Lesley, First Focus Campaign for Children

Editor’s note: The family was brought together after readers and community organizations read the PBS NewsHour, Detroit News report. See the follow-up: Home for Christmas for Detroit family, son with asthma.